Memories · Notes from West London

More about running out of petrol

Yesterday I noted how a replacement vehicle that was supplied by our garage earlier this month came with barely enough fuel for our needs. It got me thinking about the other two occasions when I have nearly run out of petrol.

The last time was when we bought our current car, in 2008. It has done just over 40,000 miles since then (around 5,000 miles a year) so should have plenty of life in it yet. When we bought it the salesman promised all sorts of extras including (and he made a big deal of this) a full tank of petrol. I collected it on a Friday evening and drove away with the vague feeling that I might still owe them some money, that they hadn’t taken the whole payment that was due. But it was after 6pm and I wanted to get home so hadn’t questioned the salesman about this.

The petrol tank was not full. There wasn’t even enough fuel to get me home, less than five miles away. I changed my route to take me past the only petrol station that I was sure would be open (on Gunnersbury Avenue), filled up the tank and seethed silently at the salesman’s lies. He had made such a big thing about the full tank of petrol (he mentioned it at least five times) and the needle on the fuel gauge was as far to the left as I’ve ever seen it. When I got back to the car my phone rang. It was the salesman. He had, after all, forgotten to take the last part of my payment and asked if there was any way I could get back to the office tonight. They’d stay open, even though it was past closing time. He would be in big trouble if it didn’t get sorted that day. Here was my opportunity to pay him back for his mendacity. For a second or two all sorts of responses went through my head. They still do, that’s why I’m telling you all this. “You know how you promised me a tankful of petrol? The tank was empty, mate. I couldn’t even get home. I’m still at the petrol station now. I tell you what, if you hadn’t lied to me about the fuel I would come straight back and sort this out now, but because you lied to me you’ll have to sweat it out till Monday. I’ve kept my part of the bargain, paid everything you asked me to at the showroom. If you didn’t do your job correctly that’s just tough. See you on Monday.”

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t say any of this. Through clenched teeth I agreed to go back to the garage and sort out the discrepancy in the payment. My only concession to the rage I was feeling was to drive slowly, I dragged it out an extra few minutes, but this still wasn’t much of a consolation. It meant that I arrived home even later than planned.

The other time when I came close to running out of fuel was in May 1997, the month after my mother died. I took a trip through France and Italy, drove the whole way there and back in her old Peugeot 307. I was near Brive, right in the middle of France, visiting old neighbours, a husband and wife who had moved back there in the 1970s. Their three children were, like me, all grown up and none of them lived nearby. The petrol tank was under a quarter full when I arrived on a Friday afternoon. I was a little later than planned so didn’t fill up. The husband and I went for a long drive on the Saturday and again on the Sunday. By then the fuel tank was as low as I would allow it to go but I would fill up on the way to the motorway the following morning, at the first service station I saw.

Some people are very kind. My hosts offered to show me the best way to the motorway, the way that most people didn’t know. I declined their offer. I was happy to take any route as long as it involved filling up with unleaded, but didn’t tell them this. They insisted. These people had seen me only twice since I was ten and maybe I was still a child in their eyes. Grown-ups know best, right? They led the way and I followed. The dashboard had a light to indicate when the reserve tank was in use. It started flashing within a mile. I believed that I had no more than 15 miles’ worth of fuel left. We drove for over 15 miles on roads that were surprisingly hilly. We would climb for as much as 0.9 of a mile and then go downhill for a similar distance. I freewheeled down every hill and even managed to freewheel back up a hill for half a mile at one point. I found it fascinating, but felt a little anxious. For a few happy seconds the reserve tank light went off, and then came on again, seemingly twice as bright as before.

We passed a petrol station. Should I just pull in and make my hosts swing round to find out what was up? I didn’t, I just kept on following them. Within a couple of miles they stopped and pointed to the signs showing that the motorway was about 1km away. I got out to thank them once again for their hospitality and hoped that they wouldn’t stick around to make sure that I drove towards the motorway. They didn’t. I tinkered around with a few things in the boot until they were well out of sight, then turned the car around and headed back to the petrol station, safe in the knowledge that if the tank ran dry I was at least within walking distance. We made it. I freewheeled the last hundred yards onto the forecourt, just to be safe, and pumped more litres of fuel into a petrol tank than I ever had before.


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